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The Absence of Pain

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Aral finished off the bottle and slumped back on the sofa alongside Padma.

"Why are you doing this to yourself?" Padma demanded at last in frustration. "Yes, it was a defeat, but you did everything you could to stop it beforehand, and then you brought more men home than anyone would have believed possible. If anyone failed, it wasn't you."

Aral said nothing, and Padma knew it was hopeless, but he kept trying anyway. That was what a true Vor did. Aral had taught him that.

"Everyone is saying it," he went on. "All I hear all day long is Admiral Vorkosigan this and Admiral Vorkosigan that. But you didn't even come to receive the medal."

"What," Aral said, his words slow and careful, "the fuck do you think I would do with a medal?"

"I know you have plenty already," Padma retorted. "But it's not just for you. The men all want to show you the honour you've earned."

"Honour," Aral spat. "You don't know what you're talking about. And for God's sake stop nagging at me like an old grandmother."

Padma tried not to flinch too visibly. Aral had been lashing out whenever Padma tried to talk to him, and Padma knew it was an attempt to drive him away. He was determined that it wouldn't work, that he wouldn't fail his cousin, but right now he wanted to give Aral a crack across the jaw and tell him to snap out of it. But that hadn't worked after Komarr, and it wouldn't work now.

Instead, he said nothing, just sat silently by. Aral stared into space, his breathing gradually becoming heavier and slower. Not long now, Padma knew from far too much experience.

"I know..." Aral said, his voice thick, "I know I'm ... disappointing you. But I don't... I don't want..."

His head fell onto Padma's shoulder, and whatever it was he didn't want, he didn't say. Padma looked down at Aral's face, his pain blotted out now in oblivion. For a few hours, at least.

"Aral, you idiot," Padma said quietly. "You have to stop this. Soon."

The door opened and Alys came in, then stopped. "Oh."

"Yes," Padma said. "Sorry. I don't think your dinner is going to happen. He was pretty drunk when he arrived, and then--"

"So I see." She came over and gave Aral a long stare. "Did he say anything?"

"Mostly he insulted me," Padma said. He stood up, easing Aral down so he was lying on the sofa. Aral mumbled something unintelligible, but didn't open his eyes.

"I'll call for his car and Armsmen," Alys said. "And have a word with the cook. We can try again some other time. It's all right, love."

"No," Padma said. "No. It's not."

Alys stood by him for a moment and pressed his hand. "I know."

***

Padma helped Alys carefully out of the lightflyer and closed the hatch, then turned. Aral was approaching across the lawn. Padma studied him. Aral's head was up and his eyes were alive, and a few steps behind him was a strange woman, looking at them curiously. Lady Vorkosigan. Padma strode forwards to meet Aral. As soon as Aral came into range, he drew back his fist and slugged Aral hard on the jaw. The blow reverberated down his arm satisfyingly. Aral recoiled, his arms coming up defensively to block Padma's follow-up, and they stood facing each other. Padma glared.

"What the--?" Aral began. "Padma--"

"You got married," Padma growled, "and you didn't invite us, or even think to mention it. We only found out when your father called, and it sounds like he was lucky not to have missed it too!"

Alys, sedately walking up to join them, did not blink at this altercation, though Lady Vorkosigan was watching wide-eyed.

Aral took a step back and rubbed his jaw. "You've been wanting to do that for a while, haven't you?" he said quietly. "All right." He raised a hand in unaccustomed surrender, making Padma blink in surprise. "Well, it was all a bit of a rush. Besides, I don't think Cordelia and I could have stood the kind of circus you two had," he explained mildly. "Afternoon, Alys," Aral went on as she reached them. "You look radiant."

Lady Vorkosigan came forwards, her gaze shifting between the three of them. "This is my cousin Padma and his wife Alys," Aral said before Padma could respond. "And this is my wife." He gave a funny little smile that melted Padma's remaining anger despite himself. He couldn't remember ever seeing an expression like that on Aral's face before. "Lady Cordelia Vorkosigan," Aral concluded, the syllables warm on his lips.

"My lady," Padma said, bowing. Alys placed a hand on Padma's arm and gave a graceful curtsey. Lady Vorkosigan stared at them for a moment, then bobbed her head at them both.

"Pleased to meet you," she said in a flat Betan accent. "Yes, we did everything rather quickly." The small smile on her lips matched Aral's. "I'm afraid I don't really know how people normally do this on Barrayar. Everything is so different here."

"I suppose it must be," Padma said to her. "We're very pleased to meet you. Welcome to the family."

"Thank you," she said, looking a little bemused. "Um--do you want to come on in? I think there's tea, or something--" She glanced at the house, evidently not yet settled in her role as hostess here.

"If you still want to knock my head off," Aral said, turning back to Padma, "you'd better do it here, because the Armsmen won't like it if you try it inside."

Padma gripped Aral's shoulders and looked at him, hard. He could still see the traces of what Aral had been doing to himself in the greyish skin around his eyes and the new lines on his face, but Aral was sober and alive and amazingly, impossibly, happy. Aral looked back at him.

"I'm sorry," he said, very quietly. "And thank you."

Padma pulled him into an embrace, quick and hard. "Stay this way," he murmured back.

"Oh," Aral breathed, "I intend to."